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There is a general consensus of opinion about the central features of the notion of `believing-in' and in `Belief-In and Belief in God' J. N. Williams refreshingly rejects a number of the central points of this consensus.(1) It is always valuable to reassess entrenched positions, but I find myself unconvinced by Williams's arguments, and in this paper I shall argue that his conclusion does not follow from the considerations he adduces, while the points he makes along the way, against myself and others, are often importantly incorrect. The notion of believing-in is found in quite ordinary domains of language as well as in religious language, and it is helpful when considering its function to look initially at these uses. In his discussion of the matter William is, I think, either wrong or misleading concerning three. main, issues in this area: the dual nature of belief-in, the performative aspect of belief-in, and the nature of belief arousal, and I shall consider these before turning to the special case of belief in God.
I. THE DUAL NATURE OF BELIEF-IN
(a) Belief in and commendation
That belief-in has two main uses was suggested by a number of writers in the late 1960s, the most influential of whom was H. H. Price, who discussed the matter in an early paper.(2) From the point of view of non-religious language there is not a great difference between `having faith in' and at least one of the senses of `believing in', though there is an increasing tendency to separate them when religious language is under consideration. As D. M. High remarks, `It has become hallowed parlance among modern Protestant theologians to distinguish sharply between the terms "faith" and "belief", reserving "faith" for [that] which is beyond or independent of ordinary rational considerations and shunning "belief" as more akin to intellectual assent.'(3) Similarly, the OED records the fact that "`belief in God" no longer means as much as "faith in God"',(4) nor is the claim that `belief' and `faith' should be distinguished new. `To beleeve onely possibilities', said Thomas Browne, `is not faith, but meere Philosophy.' Indeed, following Tertullian, Browne went further, `me thinkes', he said, `there be not impossibilities enough in Religion for an active faith... to credit ordinary and visible objects is not faith, but perswasion'.(5)
That `believe-in', or the more prestigious `have faith-in', has two senses is generally accepted. As early as 1953, Hick noted that
The word `faith is commonly used, in relation to religion, in two distinct though related senses, which may conveniently be designated by the terms fides and fiducia.
Fiducia... denotes the worshipper's attitude of practical trust in God. This religious attitude, however, presupposes the occurrence of faith in a different and cognitive sense. For before we can repose our devotion and confidence in God, we must first be aware of His existence. And this awareness is also an exercise of faith, faith not now as trust but as cognition. The religious person is said to know God `by faith', or to believe `by faith' that there is a God. Faith in this logically prior sense, as a mode of apprehension, we may distinguish as fides.(6)
I accepted an analogous dual nature for believe-in in my early paper `Belief-In'.(7) I still do. In one of these main uses `believe in', in addition to reporting a belief, has a commendatory aspect: I can say, unproblematically, that I believe in your competence, but not, save ironically, that I believe in your incompetence. If I believe in someone's suitability for a given task, then I believe that s/he is suitable for the task, and of course in saying I believe in his or her suitability for the task, I am (thereby) commending that person as suitable for the task. Again, remarking that I believe in someone's unsuitability for the task is only semantically acceptable if my intention is pitched in a dimension of irony, sardonicism, or the like.
There is a family of attitudes of which approval is one central member (others are commending, trusting, being willing to rely on, having faith in), one or more members of which accompany paradigmatic cases of this use of believing-in. This group is essential to the concept of friendship, and by simple extension to the greatest of the theological virtues, caritas (charity, love), characterized by Aquinas as `the friendship of humans for God'.(8) One of the strengths of `believe-in' in this sense is that it spans the commending/ approving group, and so may express now approval, now trust, now commendation, etc., depending on the context of utterance.
(b) Belief in and existence
Our other main non-theological use of believe in is simultaneously to record and. reject an existence claim concerning entities. It is children who believe in Santa Claus, and in saying of them that they believe in Santa Claus we are recording both their belief in the existence of Santa Claus, and our disbelief Apart from `I believe in God', first person present tense uses of what we might call existential belief-in sentences are rare and are almost inevitably accompanied by an awareness that the belief-in in question stands in need of justification. James I, we say, believed in witches, but we do not say that he believed in horses because horses exist, and that fact was as well known to him as it is to us. The standard use of this sense of `believe in' is not a first person use, but a second or, more usually, a third person use, and the term is used to indicate the fact that the existential belief of the believer-in is mistaken.(9) Typically, someone is said to believe in an entity in this use only if the normal consensus of rational belief is against that entity's existence.
In `Belief-In' I suggested that this linguistic feature should alert believers who use the idiom of themselves to the fact that at some level they themselves are aware of the need for justification for the belief. Such justification, I argued, would require something very like the traditional proofs. I still believe that something as strong as a traditional proof is necessary, but in view of the recent resurgence of fideism in a new and logically more sophisticated guise, I think that more is necessary in the way of argument than I offered there, or than I can offer in the present context.
Part of the problem in discussing the notion of `believing in' is that there appears to be not as much consensus as one might hope concerning the semantic acceptability of various possible sentences. Williams, for example, seems to feel that the sentence
I believe in the combustibility of nylon. is unexceptionable -- he writes, `belief in the combustibility of nylon is simply belief that nylon is combustible' (40 I) -- but such utterances are not standard. We do not say things like `I believe in the solubility of sugar in water': we know that sugar is soluble, and there's an end on't. `Believe in' suggests that the position is dubious, and hence is not used for remarking on commonplaces.
This is not to say that the believer in is believing irrationally, necessarily. In general children believe in Santa Claus because their parents have lied to them and, still in general, though they do have grounds in favour of their parents' general trustworthiness, they do not (yet) have sufficient grounds to know that their parents may on occasion be systematically untrustworthy.
Thus their belief may be rationally based. Nonetheless, when people say of a child that it believes in Santa Claus, they make it clear thereby that that is not one of their beliefs. The subjective belief state of the child may be of a piece with a similar belief concerning his or her grandparents, but that does not license a …